Giant Robot
April/May 2000

The Divine Eye gazes unblinkingly from the enormous globe on the altar. Twenty-eight dragon-encrusted columns, representing the twenty-eight manifestations of the Buddha, run the entire length of the immense chamber. The temple's enormous windows, all emblazoned with the Eye, let in the muted sunlight. Lao Tze, the Sakyamoni Buddha, and Confucius share the stage with Jesus Christ on the fronton above the altar. The Great Divine Temple, epicenter of the Cao Dai religion, is unlike any other house of worship in the world.

Cao Daism was founded in southern Viet Nam in 1926 and claims six million adherents. Cao Dai temples dot the Mekong Delta, but the faith's world headquarters is the Holy See compound which lies just outside the Vietnamese city of Tay Ninh, about two hours northwest of Saigon, near the Cambodian border.

Like the Cao Dai religion, the Great Divine Temple, centerpiece of the Holy See compound, is a vibrant and mesmerizing mix of different traditions and theologies. The immensity of the temple combined with the riotous colours and statuary creates an effect that is at once grand and gaudy. The enormous temple and its accoutrements will inspire thoughts of the Supreme Being, but also of Walt Disney.

A full appreciation of the temple requires some knowledge of the Cao Dai religion. While many other religions are insular, Caodaism trumpets its foundations in other faiths. Caodaists describe their religion as the unification of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism: These faiths are represented in Cao Dai theology through such concepts as reincarnation, vegetarianism and yin and yang and also on the Cao Dai banner - a tri-colour with one colour for each religion.

Cao Daism garners inspiration from farther afield as well: Striding a spire high on the temple's roof is the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Shiva and Krishna. A mural inside the temple commemorates French novelist Victor Hugo, Chinese Nationalist Party leader Sun Yat Sen and Vietnamese poet Trang Trinh as three saints, witnesses to the 3rd alliance between God and humanity. And while Cao Dai theology is largely Eastern,

the hierarchy is clearly Western: The organizational structure closely mirrors the Catholic Church, with bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and a Pope.

Services at the temple, held daily at noon, 6 pm, midnight and 6 am, offer another glimpse of this East-meets-West eclecticism. An orchestra of 10 musicians and a choir of 20 youths lead the congregation in prayer. The hymns are much closer to Christian spirituals than traditional Buddhist or Taoist chanting, but the music is unmistakably Vietnamese. The mix, neither wholly Vietnamese nor wholly Western, is both very exotic and incredibly spiritual. During the forty-minute prayer session, a Cao Dai follower explains, the presence of God comes into the chapel and gazes out at the congregation through the Divine Eye.

Worshippers are separated by gender - men on the right and women on the left. In contrast to the vivid colours of the temple, lay followers and women wear pure white. Men with the rank of priest and higher are robed in solid colours depending on their spiritual allegiance within Caodaism: yellow (symbolizing Buddhism and virtue), blue (Taoism and pacifism) or red (Confucianism and authority). Bishops and cardinals also have an eye emblazoned on their headpieces.

The Cao Dai are quite proud of the uniqueness of their religion and the fantastical palace they have created for it. Tourists are welcome to view and photograph the ceremony from balconies which run high along the walls leading to the altar. Because most visitors are day trippers from Saigon, the noon ceremony is the most heavily touristed. Even with people wandering up and down the stairs to the balconies, flash bulbs popping and video cameras whirring, the Cao Dai go out of their way to encourage visitors to feel at ease. Indeed, hospitality seems to be the religion's highest virtue.

While taking an organized tour is undoubtedly the most convenient way to visit the Holy See compound, there are benefits to getting there on your own for the morning, evening or midnight ceremonies: Visiting feels much different if you are the only visitor. For example, being a lone curious foreigner strolling the compound of the temple resulted in a very special invitation - to a funeral.

From the Great Divine Temple to the cemetery, the deceased was borne in a dragon-shaped carriage emblazoned with the Divine Eye and towed by a battalion of men dressed in black. The mourners followed the carriage and a band brought up the rear. Leading the band was a breakdancing Vietnamese man clad in black leather and sporting a fedora which he flipped on and off with perfect "Billie Jean" precision. Although the Michael Jackson drum major should have prepared me for anything, I was still surprised when the funeral band struck up Ricky Martin's "Cup of Life".

Although I was self-conscious at first, the mourners quickly made me feel like an honoured guest. We arrived at the cemetery for a ceremony that was short, simple and respectful. My new friends thanked me for attending and drove me in a cart back to the temple compound. I entered the temple and found myself speaking with Tran Thy Ngoc Mai, a 50-year-old lay follower who volunteers her time at the temple. With seemingly infinite patience and excellent English, she gave me a thorough lesson on Cao Dai cosmology and theological thought.

You may find the religion and the temple strange. You may be bewildered by Divine Eyes, seven-headed cobras representing the seven human emotions, and representations of Jesus and Victor Hugo. But one thing is certain: The hospitality of the Cao Dai will impress you.

Arriving in Tay Ninh on your own also allows you to explore the rest of the Holy See compound - although The Great Divine Temple is far and away the main attraction - and sample food from the countless vegetarian restaurants just outside the temple grounds.

Nui Ba Den (Black Lady Mountain) is a large round hill which rises in complete solitude out of the flatness of the Mekong Delta about 10 kilometers from the Holy See. An absolute must for Vietnamese tourists, the area is worth a look if time permits. The view from the observation area - accessible by footpath or cable car - is not necessarily breathtaking, but it does give you an appreciation for the surreal flatness and lush greenery of the Mekong Delta, as well as the majestic sweep of the mighty Mekong itself.

In addition to several grottos and cafes, the summit area boasts a Buddhist temple which is quite picturesque in its lovely setting. But don't be surprised if the Buddhist temple seems downright spartan after the riot of colour and warm hospitality of the Cao Dai Great Divine Temple.

For those short on time, the best way to visit Tay Ninh is by booking a travel agency day trip from Saigon. Prices start at $4 per person and most tours also stop at the famous Cu Chi tunnels on the way back to Saigon.

Attending the less touristed prayer sessions and exploring the area more thoroughly requires getting to Tay Ninh on your own. Between Saigon and Tay Ninh, public buses depart every half hour from 5 am to 8 pm and cost 82 US cents for the 3 1/2 hour trip. Private minivans depart about every 15 minutes, depending on demand, between 7:00 am and 7:00 pm and cost US$1.42 for the 2 hour trip. Buses leave Saigon from the An Suong bus station and minivans depart from nearby An Suong intersection. Because An Suong is far from downtown Ho Chi Minh City, you may find it worthwhile to book a $4 tour, using it as a one-way ride and returning by bus or minivan.